Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) is a frustrated first time theatre director. Placing a lead actress for his adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s book Venus in Fur has proved fruitless, and he is just about to give up for the day, when an unknown actress – who claims her name is Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) – arrives at the theatre, and begs Thomas for an audition.
There is something of an Inception vibe about the whole Venus is Fur affair. The film is a play within a play, as was the stage play it is adapted from, and the book both were based on was a book within a book. It would be easy, if the performances from the lead actors were not so strong, for there to be an unintentional blurry line between actor and character here, but Polanski’s strong direction, and the actors’ talents, means that when the lines get blurred, it is wholly intentional.
This two hander lives and dies on the performances of, and the chemistry between, the two leads. Amalric channels his inner Woody Allen as Thomas, but as time goes on, Thomas is lost in a blur between actor and the character he is reading. The same goes from Seigner as Vanda, although there is a clearer distinction between the actress and the character she is auditioning for… To begin with, anyway. The chemistry between the two actors is wonderful and it is clear that their characters are enjoying the power struggle between the two.
Polanski directs with aplomb, and corrects the mistakes he made with Carnage. Although the setting is essentially one room, wider shots and changing the space allows the film to feel less claustrophobic and stunted, instead allowing the energy and spark between the two actors to ebb and flow. The screenplay is cleverly written, and always makes sure that the audience knows who is speaking; actor or character. There does, however, seem to be a lack of an end game and the deliberate choice to make Vanda’s origins and intents unclear means that the audience has plenty to talk about after the film – is she a seductress or a goddess in disguise? – but also leaves the film feeling rather unfinished.
Venus in Fur is an acting master class from Amalric and Seigner, both are on top of their game, and the chemistry and enjoyment between the two is obvious. Polanski reminds us of his skill as a director, but the unanswered questions means that the film ends with a whimper, rather than a bang.